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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Robbing an Eagle's Nest

Robbing an Eagle's Nest

THE Eagle, sacred to Jove, is called Iolair, by the Highlanders, as a generic name, but a common designation is Fioreun, a term composed of Fior, perfect, true, and Eun, a bird, and it well merits such a title of distinction, holding the first rank among birds, as the lion does among quadrupeds.

The towering flight of the eagle has been often alluded to with admiration; in the height to which he soars he is frequently lost to view; yet, from this altitude, he appears, by his extraordinary visual powers, to discover his prey, on which he descends with amazing rapidity. When, however, the bird is flying low, the speed is not remarkably great; and notwithstanding his surprising strength, majestic mien, and expanse of wing, the act of rising from the ground is accomplished with difficulty.

This noblest of British birds is so keenly pursued as a destroyer of game, that they have, in general, much decreased; yet, it is observable, that in those parts of the Highlands where the population has been removed, it has been favourable to the increase of the Jolairean, and game on which they prey has become, consequently, scarce; the lambs of the solitary shepherd, more particularly, affording them a frequent and favourite repast.

The districts of Arisaig, Muidart, and Morar, on the Western coast of Inverness-shire, still known by the natives as ‘the country of Clan Rannald,’ though now in possession of the stranger, are rather famed for the stock of these monarchs of the feathered race; and in the former locality, the interesting circumstance took place which forms the subject of the accompanying print, and which the young man to whom it occurred himself related to the artist. On the summit and ledges of its inaccessible crags, the eagle rears its young, and may be observed looking abroad, fearless of molestation, searching with its piercing eyes the lake and the plains, whence it so often, to the shepherd’s grief, bears off its prey.

The anecdote was thus detailed :—Having repeatedly lost his lambs, a watch was carefully set, and the lawless ‘lifter’ was detected by the Buachail, or herdsman, in the very act—a splendid eagle, seizing a lambkin, bore it away, high in mid air to feed its young. The nest was built in the cliff of a perpendicular rock, on the north side of Loch nan uagh, or Lake of the caves, noted as the place where Prince Charles landed, in the rising of 1715. The eyrie was thus discovered; but a height of two hundred feet from the surface of the lake seemed to preclude the shepherd from all modes of assault. Determined to succeed, the fearless Celt formed the resolution of descending from above, as practised by the fowlers in the island of St. Kilda and the North Isles, and slung himself by a rope over the dizzy steep. He had reached the nest, where lay his lamb, the provender for two voracious eaglets, when suddenly he was pounced on by the old birds, arrived with a fresh supply. The peril of his situation may be conceived; on plain ground the fierce encounter with two such infuriated assailants would have been sufficiently trying, but in his position it was appalling. He defended himself long from their furious attacks, and at last succeeded in wounding both with his sgian-dubh; when, fastening to his girdle the eaglets and the relics of the lamb, with the knife in his mouth, ready for further defence, he warped himself up, and fortunately reached the summit, bleeding and quite exhausted! A similar exploit is recorded as having taken place in the province of Connaught, Ireland; but in this case the hero was let down the precipice in a basket, which gave him a great advantage over the Highlander; yet he was glad to escape, after wounding one of the eagles, without accomplishing his object.

The plunder which eagles may amass is astonishing, both from its quantity and variety, and their predacious habits require an extended range: from their power of wing and talons, and the deadly stroke of beak, none of the weaker animals can make defence. Naturalists have at the same time observed, that they do not indulge in wanton destruction, are inclined to solitude, and roam only in search of food. It is told of a gentleman in Strathspey, near whose residence a couple of large eagles had taken up their abode, that if, on the arrival of guests or otherwise, he was in want of provision, he sent to the eyrie of his providers, where hares, rabbits, poultry, game, and lambs were procured. Salmon and trout might even be found among the multifarious products of the forage, for it is known that they will watch by the breeding fords of the fish, and destroy numbers when weakly and intent on forming the beds for their spawn; but instances are on record where the salmon has destroyed the eagle, by carrying it under water, when incapable of extricating his deep sunk talons, and having his plumage drenched in the stream.

A Highlander, who had found out a nest with young, contrived, by fixing rings around the eaglets’ throats, to restrict their appetite, to live sumptuously, by carrying away, daily, the best provision which the old eagles had collected for their brood. In some countries young eagles are trained to the chase.

The voracity of the eagle sometimes equals that of the vulture, and it is not unusual to find the bird so gorged over a carcase, that, unable to get away, it is overtaken and killed. It lives to a very old age, being known to have reached considerably upwards of a century.

As the eagle is reckoned the most noble bearing in heraldry, so it affords the mark of distinction among the Gaël. By the Ossianic compositions, we learn that a pinion distinguished the heroes of old. The Highlander carries one feather in his bonnet, the Duine uasal, or higher order, display two, and the chief is known by bearing three. Had the enterprise of Prince Charles been successful, it is said that a Celtic order of the mountain eagle was to have been instituted.

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